Wednesday, April 25, 2012


It's Day 25 of the WEGO Health Activist Writer's Month Challenge and I'm to tell you a memory — but I have to write it in the third person. Here goes!

There is a woman, a very private woman (let's call her "Our Lady With Cancer") who felt oddly ignored during and after her breast cancer "experience." And it seems Our Lady With Cancer brought it all on herself. How so? In choosing not to tell everyone on earth about her diagnosis, she cut off a large lifeline of people that could have made her journey so much easier. 

You see, coming out publicly about having cancer is not in Our Lady With Cancer's blood. She is diligent about keeping references to her health off of Facebook. To her "friends" not in the know, they would never know what she is really going through. And that's the way she likes it. She continues to post pretty pictures and comment on others' FB posts, but she keeps the biggest secret of her life to herself — an attempt at controlling an uncontrollable beast.

She tells the people who need to know — the people she is closest to, her family, the folks she trusts. But she can't handle the thought of being talked about or rejected during this very vulnerable time. So she continues to keep "it" quiet.

She also tells a select few people who are large cogs in her social wheel... people she knows will get the word out. She doesn't want to have to say "I have cancer" too many times. She knows if she turns on the faucet, they will come to the trough.

So it comes as quite a shock when Our Lady With Cancer's pool of support slowly dries up in the weeks and months following her bilateral mastectomy. Though she doesn't talk about "it" on Facebook, she is still surprised when no one addresses her dance with cancer — publicly or privately.

Even members of her extended family are strangely silent. How can this be? She imagines how some would handle a cancer diagnosis — how it would be all they talked about, every detail dripping in drama, drama, drama.

Well, be careful what you wish for, Our Lady With Cancer: You never wanted too much attention, and so you never got it. Our Lady begins to question her worth as a friend, a family member, a patient, a human being in need. She struggles with asking for help when help has never been offered in the first place. The fear of rejection is stifling her vulnerability. 

One day she goes to lunch with a friend (who is also friends with one of the "cogs") and is shocked to learn said friend doesn't know she has cancer. WTF? Our Lady With Cancer emails another former friend — and finds that person similarly shocked. Turns out the cog has kept quiet — respecting the very privacy that is so beloved by Our Lady With Cancer. (Well, what do you know about that!)

Our Lady With Cancer attends a baby shower. The room is packed with people. She decides not to keep "it" a secret any longer. She will openly and gladly talk about her breast cancer experience with anyone at the party who asks. Yet, remarkably, no one does.

But this time, she is not silenced. Our Lady With Cancer brings "it" up. She shocks many in the room that day. Jaws drop left and right. She talks about her fears, her cancer, her reconstruction. In fact, cancer is all she talks about. When she leaves the party, it is with a newfound (and hard-won) freedom. And a lightness of being. An almost unbearable lightness of being.

Now Our Lady With Cancer mentions "it" whenever it is appropriate. On the hiking trail, she falls into conversation with another hiker and tells him she is recovering from breast cancer surgery; he in turn tells her about a close friend with breast cancer who just completed the Ironman. At a farmer's market, Our Lady With Cancer asks for help to her car because she cannot carry heavy bags after her double mastectomy; the woman helping her reveals her own battle with stomach cancer. 
Our Lady With Cancer is no longer afraid to talk about cancer. And she realizes an old school truth: People are not talking about her. They are not focused on her. They are focused on themselves.

After a friend is diagnosed, Our Lady With Cancer emails — expressing concern and revealing her own cancer. The woman writes back, "Yes, I know. I heard." Our Lady With Cancer understands that people do not always know what to say to people who have cancer. Especially private people who have cancer.


  1. Wow, this really resonated with me, Renn! I'm so proud of you for mentioning your cancer diagnosis at the baby shower. And revealing way more than the diagnosis. We do get to the point where we are no longer afraid to bring it up. But it's quite the struggle to get there, what with all the quirkiness of many people in their responses (or lack thereof). Thanks for revealing this poignant and private tale. xx

  2. Amazing post, I imagine how difficult that was to give up the control. Having the fear of how people will react.

    I know my incident wasn't life threatening but I told very few people until I realized holding it in was only hurting me, my ex husband raped me I tried to forget about it... not talk about it, for a year.

    When I finally opened up and let people in, my life actually opened up and became wonderful, I was no longer ashamed.

    You have the most awesome blogs, I really love reading them:)

  3. Oh, Renn. Thank you for writing this. I read it over and over and at times, I felt like I was watching myself doing a similar dance with cancer.

  4. @Jan: Thanks! Man that was a hard nut to crack at the shower but once I did it, I no longer cared. Funny how that works! Only 5 more days of the challenge!

    @Launna: I'm so sorry you suffered in silence too. Shame is a powerful emotion. And rather useless, I have come to realize. Thank you for reading!

    @Yvonne: I know I wasn't alone in wanting to keep so quiet about BC, but at times I sure felt alone! No longer. On some level we have all danced around this issue. xo

  5. Yes Renn! As you know I was right there with you. Intensely private and determined to not have anyone feel sorry for me. Yet as I progressed through the steps of treatment and recovery, I was pissed by the reaction (or lack thereof) of friends, loved ones and coworkers.
    There are some things we learn through living them; figuring out how (and when, and where) to communicate about having cancer is apparently one of them.

  6. Dee: Well said. I know you know the silence of which I speak! Thanks sistah.

  7. Renn, I so enjoyed your post this morning, even though I was the opposite. I was an "open book" from the get-go! But, I try to mentor women diagnosed and have run into the "very private ones". Even though I have walked that same road they are about to go down....they seem to not want to talk about it with me or accept my help (even ones that know me). It left me scratching my head and feeling so badly that they didn't know the blessings they were missing out on....even from strangers. Yes, I had the "silence" from some I would have thought would have stood by me and been more interested....even my own sister and her family. But, for every one of them,. I had waiters and waitresses, nurses, doctors, office people, total strangers showing me love and encouraging me and just plain blessing me! My advice....don't hide are only cheating yourself from blessings by keeping it private. And by sharing it, you very well be helping someone else face it...if not now, down the road when they get a diagnosis. I have also found that those who share with others, including others who have the diagnosis too, have more knowledge about their disease and treatments and doctors and know what to expect and ask of the doctors. Knowledge is power! Thanks for spreading this message Renn!

  8. Hi Cindy! Thank you so much for sharing the flip side of this coin. It's important to see both sides so we're not all left scratching our heads!

    Cancer is an extremely individual adventure and experience. It can open you up or it can make you clam up. It's also a matter of processing. I am a private person who processes things very slowly. My process is far more internal than external. I am the patient who is not afraid to ask for every last detail of every medical procedure and report I have ever had, and I question my doctors to death in that process! Yet I am reticent to ask for help with the laundry. Everyone is so different!

    Learning to know what you need and asking for it is a life-long process; cancer definitely quickens that learning curve, though she students (like me) will forever be in the back of the class.

    Thank you, Cindy, for sharing your views from the other side!

    Would love to hear from others there on this topic. Tres interesting!

  9. I meant *some* students (not "she" students)! ;-)

  10. Oh, asking for help was another thing altogether! I'm not good at that either, but thankfully I had a best friend who was offering to go with me to every doctor appt and chemo session. She was by my side everywhere! But, asking for laundry or dishes or cooking....that was harder. Thankfully a couple of friends saw the need and just pitched in on their own. And you are so right...each individual handles it their own way and no way is wrong.

    I'm just like you with the doctors...I ask them EVERYTHING! If they use a fancy my plastic surgeon using the word alloderm this week....I'll ask "what is that". The answer sometimes creeps me when he explained it was cadaver skin. I now know I have a dead person's skin in me! But, I'm a "I want to know it all" type of gal! I'm sure I wear them out too. lol!

  11. A really interesting and moving post, Renn. I have been struck by the number of people who have 'outed' themselves to me has having had cancer since my diagnosis.I am so glad you found that sense of lightness and freedom after revealing what you were going through.

  12. Cindy: You are fortunate to have such a great BFF!

    Liz: It's liberating to "come clean" with someone who then comes clean with you! Such an interesting experience. (That's an understatement!)


Your comments are encouraging — and encouraged!